All Commentary
Thursday, January 16, 2014

Incentives to Love

Christopher Marlowe. “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love.” 1599.

Sir Walter Raleigh. “The Nymph’s Reply.” 1596.

Every character in a drama or a novel needs a reason to act. That reason is what an economist would call an incentive. Without the incentive of curiosity, Alice would never chase the white rabbit into Wonderland. Without the incentive of revenge, Ahab would never spend 1,000 pages hunting Moby Dick. Without the incentive of the desire for knowledge, Faust would never make his deal with Satan, and Dr. Frankenstein would never create his monster.

Incentives are the things that make us act, that get us off the couch, and that kick our stories into gear, whether we are real people or fictional creations. In fact, one of the reasons that novice writers often have trouble writing persuasive fiction is that they forget that fictional people—just like real ones—are driven by incentives. And for a story to be convincing, those incentives must be convincing, too.

Different characters will find different incentives persuasive. Some of the greatest scenes in literature center on one character’s attempt to find just the right incentive to get another character to behave as he wants. Think about Tom Sawyer figuring out how to incentivize his friends to whitewash the fence for him. Think about Lady Macbeth trying to find just the right incentive to get her husband to murder the king. Think about nearly any love poem you can imagine.

One of the best depictions of a debate over the power of a set of incentives is a pair of love poems by Christopher Marlowe (1564–1593) and Sir Walter Raleigh (1552–1618). Marlowe began the discussion with his poem “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love,” which is essentially a long list of all the good things the shepherd will give to a young woman if she agrees to “live with me and be my love.”

It’s a classic case of positive incentives. If the young woman does something the shepherd desires, she will be rewarded with things that she desires herself—things like “beds of roses/With a thousand fragrant posies/A cap of flowers, and a kirtle/Embroidered all with leaves of myrtle.” (If the shepherd threatened the young lady with ruin if she refused him, the poem would be about disincentives or negative incentives. It would also be a lot creepier.)

Marlowe’s poem is a classic pastoral poem. Poems of this genre are set in an imagined rural paradise marked by lots of festivity, easy access to food and drink, an endless supply of young lovers, and not too much work. When we look at the list of incentives Marlowe’s shepherd is offering, we can see that they are rustic analogues of the luxuries of city life. The birds will sing madrigals, like well-trained court singers. Rather than expensive and labor-intensive embroidered leaves and flowers on the young woman’s clothing, she is offered a belt, cap, and kirtle that are literally made of flowers and leaves. Aside from the gold buckles she is told she will have on her shoes, all the luxuries the shepherd promises her are naturally produced, and Marlowe means for them to contrast appealingly with the overwrought artificial luxuries of city life.

It is a thoroughly charming poem. But Raleigh found it, and seems to have suspected that many young women would find it, thoroughly unpersuasive. In his poem “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd,” the young woman is given an opportunity to tell the shepherd what she thinks of his incentives. And as it turns out, she doesn’t think much of them.

Raleigh’s pragmatic nymph finds the pastoral worldview of the shepherd a little too unrealistic to line up with her experience. As she points out, young lovers age, the warm spring becomes cold winter, and flowers fade.

Thy gowns, thy shoes, thy beds of roses,

Thy cap, thy kirtle, and thy posies

Soon break, soon wither, soon forgotten—

In folly ripe, in reason rotten.

His incentives are too temporary to persuade her to “live with thee and by thy love” because he is asking for a long-term commitment from her and offering short-term incentives. If the pastoral world really existed, she notes, he’d be a lot more persuasive. But it doesn’t. And so, “All these in me no means can move/To come to thee and be thy love.”

It might be useful to think of the nymph’s reply as an example of how the economic way of thinking can serve to cut through purely romantic imaginings about the way the world might be, by balancing it out with an insistence on remembering the way the world really is.